Tag Archives: Spring 2016

To Carry C. D. Wright’s Work Forward, Shining

cd-wrightby Jill Magi

These climacteric times: households drained and precarious, earth and creatures endangered, battlefields new and old, borders walled, the privatization of nearly everything, power and violence so well-groomed and stealth it covers its tracks quickly, fear as first response. There are large-scale losses and shifts looming. There is also the singular event of last breath, and a lover, family, and community mourns.

After loss, a ridge juts up out of the landscape: one surface drops down deeper into earth, the other pushes up into the sky. The ridge a scar interrupting life-as-it-is, intercepting the tumbling forward of worn-out words, slowing the speed of habitual response. During these times, the living may see things vividly, as if everything is new, and our hearts may open further than we could have imagined possible. Do some among us need to cross to the other side to do the work of the heart? I don’t know, but March of 2016 brought us one of the earliest springs in a long time, and thinking about C. D. Wright’s work brings this question to my mind.

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It is fine for poetry to perform experiments, to get lost in its own sounds; it is fine for poetry to disengage from narrative, to push out toward the domain of the impossible; it is fine to play with concepts; to squeeze the silence out of language or squeeze language from silence; fine to suppress the I and chase it into near invisibility; to seek fame in the world of poetry and among writers; it is fine to work hard at poetry and to be clever, hip, to be right and righteous. Everything that is should be—

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But increasingly I need the poetry that C. D. Wright made: poetry that puts the self in the now and on the page, in and near the conflicts of our times, with a leap, with a vulnerable heart, with others. Sensing, but not in the name of sensation collecting and showcasing. Poetry noticing the lives of others who are remarkable despite not being widely remarked upon. Poetry that says, if you ever sit at the bedside of a loved one passing into the light, poetry may be your training, and if that is all it is for, that is enough.

For about twelve years I have sat with C. D. Wright’s books, tracking her word choices, her syntax. Her forms: a practice of tidy un-tidiness, never too procedural, never too plain. Her anti-institutional, no-single-poetry-movement textures. The arrangement of the speech of others: I’ve tracked these themes of hers, waited for her next book’s subject. Her books necessary as feathers for flight, even if, when teaching and writing about her work, I have pulled out the intense, earth-bound words “ethics” and “representation.”

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Some would call it a risky gambit: to write down the speech of others, moving their words through your mouth, your pen, incorporating them into your own body/book so as to advance the idea of “one big self.” I admired C. D. Wright for the courage to do this. As a kind of poet-biographer, her works are evidence of a confident, recursive practice of the collective, as if collectivity could never exist without repeated attempts to inhabit the “other.” The representation police, as she might call them, might raise warning flags at this approach and its textual results, but I think C. D. Wright went ahead writing this way because she knew that many lives outside the drawn boundaries of “literariness” were lives lead through poetry; these so-called others were her kin in this way.

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There are poets out there among us who will never write a single word. How many of us believe this? How many of us think that our craft is so difficult that it takes a certain intelligence and commitment to enter the workshop, to enter into print? C. D. Wright kept reminding us that if we would listen to the person at the bus stop or next door who doesn’t give a shit about being published, who takes risks in language and life, who knows certain things and expresses them in a certain way, we might learn how to live.

When I was trying to write my first book, teaching myself how to go down a crooked road, as she might call it, away from the novel and toward a manuscript that wanted to be unruly, I don’t remember how, but I found Deepstep Come Shining. Maybe I was browsing at St. Mark’s Books before the intensity of a Poetry Project reading down the street, scanning the spines of books for the insignias of presses newly on my radar—

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I did not understand Deepstep Come Shining, its title, the logic behind the section breaks, the voice or voices. I could not explain any of it but through electric attraction. I read and re-read, carried away each time on its sounds, feeling close to home. No, I’m not from the South, and I am wary of anything romantic about this word “home”—as if we’re never making it exactly where we are. But class and race and other divisions inflected with inequality’s pain exist, and C. D.’s work reminds us that estrangement from our “home place” may be foisted upon us by world events and foisted upon some of us daily as we head down supposedly open highways, as we cross town to go to a job, to school, as we cross borders seen and unseen.

No society can measure up to its ideals of peace and equality, but on how to navigate the inevitability, complexity, and the violence of difference, and how to find the language of poetry at the crossings, I keep turning to C. D. Wright. Reading her, I notice the tracks dividing one part of town from the other are tracks that run right through me.

I come from church culture, from a refugee father who has an accent and a strange name, from a mother whose soft “r” sounds revealed her New York City social class no matter how silky her home-sewn dresses were. From North Jersey where people like to talk even though they are usually in a hurry. Where the syntax and lexicon of the King James Bible lived alongside the art of kvetching about traffic or an outrageous number on a price-tag, where if your humor doesn’t have an element of self-deprecation, you are not considered trustworthy. My incidental training in storytelling, poetry.

So when I got the cold shoulder at poetry venues—this seems to be a rite of passage, so why should I be exempt?—or when I couldn’t follow the literary references at a dinner party, I could go to C. D. Wright’s work in order to remember what I wanted poetry for: to be unafraid of border crossing, allowed to be “rudimentary,” intuitive, allowed to be wrong and to be wronged, to be unafraid of being a lifelong student, and unafraid to partake in poetry’s feast even while some seats at the table are reserved and appear to come at a high price. But if I ever became too wedded to the idea of myself as a poetry outsider, her work reminded me that even that position is accompanied by distance and hubris—better to let go of rigid identities and jump into the exuberance of writing with others.

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Was being a public poet, keeping up with the debates, leading a life that may have taken her away from the humor and survival linguistics beyond institutions and official poetry communities—was the work of poetry hard, heavy, alienating at times?

When I walk in Abu Dhabi, my new city, I notice that certain workers here—the ones who are slotted into the lower paid jobs through agreements between nations—are often together in the evening, sitting on the front steps of someone’s shop, at street level, cutting up late into the night. C. D.’s work reminds me to listen and to see this. But the realization of my distance from extroverted Abu Dhabi can be a little painful. Here, people like me are tucked away up inside high-rise apartment buildings, writing at spacious desks, while the real-time word workers practice their art in the street and get immediate feedback. I like to think that if C. D. Wright had visited my city she would have found the poetry on the dusty and hot street, and then she would have accompanied me up to the 27th floor where we would have talked about the view from above and the echoes of the speech events and tones below. What poetry would come from our travels between?

I deeply admire C. D. Wright’s work, and through it, I hope to keep holding this imaginary conversation with her, carrying forward, with others, her way of poetry, shining.

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[In order of their appearance, pages photographed are from C. D. Wright’s books Rising, Falling, Hovering; Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil; One Big Self: An Investigation; One With Others; Deepstep Come Shining; and the last two are both from The Poet, the Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, a Wedding in St. Roch, the Big Box Store, the Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All.]

Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016

Turning Teaching into Writing: An Interview with Wendy Barker

wendybarker2
by Alan Feldman

Wendy Barker, whose sixth full-length collection of poems, One Blackbird at a Time (BkMk Press, $13.95), won the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry, has been teaching for many years at the University of Texas San Antonio where she is currently poet-in-residence and professor. Her new book focuses on her experiences as a teacher there and much else besides, including personal memories often connected to the texts she’s teaching. Barker, who holds a literature Ph.D. from UC Davis and is the author of critical studies of Emily Dickinson and Ruth Stone, is the kind of writer we may not find as often in the future––someone who’s both a literature scholar and a poet.

When I first came upon one of Barker’s poems about her teaching, I wrote to her to say that I’d never seen any poet better describe the work we literature teachers do. Now that a whole book of such poems has appeared, it seems obvious that many of us––poets who are professors, that is––had the same opportunity as she to mine this rich project, and yet, to my knowledge, none has. Barker’s book is so rich with the texture of our complicated mental lives––one foot in literature, another in the classroom, and the mind steadily focused on the lyric possibility of all that is happening—that I felt she’d written the poems about my working life as well as her own.

This conversation was conducted via email in February of 2016.


Alan Feldman: Tell me, did this sequence of poems about teaching start with a single poem, with others coming later, or did you think it would be a sequence from the very first?

oneblackbirdatatimeWendy Barker: For years I’d been writing poems in sequences, beginning with the prose poems that eventually became a novel (or thinly veiled memoir) in verse, Nothing Between Us. I wrote the last of those poems in 1998. And then around 2003 I began another series, this time on phenomena having to do with clouds, storms, and atmospheric conditions, that became Things of the Weather. And then I started to write about colors—where they came from before chemical dyes—and the way we value them, what we associate with them. These found a home in my latest chapbook, From the Moon, Earth is Blue. So it seems that I’ve been thinking in sequences for some time. It’s as if the mind begins running in a particular track, and the poems keep following one another.

This new book began with “On Teaching Too Many Victorian Novels in Too Short a Time During Which I Become” when I was teaching a grad class on 19th-century women’s literature in addition to two other heavy-prep courses, and barely had time to think, let alone write. At the end of the semester, in December, 2007, this poem just burst through. It was followed by “Teaching Mrs. Dalloway I’m Thinking,” and the series took off.

AF: Do you usually have anyone with whom you share your thoughts about teaching? Are these poems similar to what you’d tell such a person, or do these often report what you’d only tell your most intimate friend, or the blank page?

WB: These poems just burbled up after decades in the classroom. I began teaching high school in 1966, then returned to grad school, and moved to San Antonio for my position at the University of Texas at San Antonio in 1982. I’m not sure I’d ever even reported most of the classroom incidents to anyone; they’d been simmering, to use Whitman’s word, and finally boiled over into the poems of this collection. I guess the experiences traced here are of the sort that needed the focus and leisure of the blank page (or laptop screen) to explore.

AF: Was I wrong to think that you seem to be influenced by the “ultra-talk” poets here––that sort of “throw in everything relevant” approach that’s almost like a prose personal essay––or did you have other models in mind?

WB: Not wrong at all. Right on the button. I’d been reading and rereading David Kirby, adoring the witty fluidity of his poems, the dazzle of his dialogue, his musical marathon sentences. His voice! I’d also read a dynamite poem by Barbara Ras in The New Yorker—“Washing the Elephant”—and it sparked something entirely new for me. (Since that time, I’m happy to say she’s become a close friend—she lives in San Antonio, having run Trinity University Press for a number of years.) And of course the marvelous poets Barbara Hamby and Denise Duhamel have also been exceptionally nourishing influences.

AF: Did you write many more of these poems that you didn’t choose to publish, or did you work on almost all that you came up with until they were ready for prime time?

WB: Eventually, on the advice of friends, I omitted three poems that seemed to weaken the manuscript. Of course, the poems in the collection were all revised and revised and revised, often even after they’d appeared in journals. Several friends, as well as my husband, Steven Kellman, read draft after draft. And Michelle Boisseau at BkMk Press was a huge help in the final stages.

AF: How did you wrestle with the problem of whether you were excluding readers who might not have read the works of literature you were teaching?

WB: All along, my hope has been that readers will still respond to the human dynamics surrounding the discussion of the novel or poem. But of course, my dream reader is familiar with the literary work that forms the nexus of each poem. My hope is that those readers will see how I’ve tried to echo the language of the novel or poem, even, at times, lifting the writer’s phrases (as in “In Our Class on Roethke,” for instance).

One poem for which I may have had a particular audience in mind is “Waking Over Call It Sleep.” Perhaps because my husband published a biography of Henry Roth (Redemption: A Life of Henry Roth) in 2005, Call It Sleep has held a particular significance for me. And in teaching Roth’s novel in a course on Modern American fiction, I was delighted that the students responded enthusiastically. But the incident with the young woman I call “Heather” in the poem—in which she quipped after I’d mentioned that only one percent of San Antonio’s population is Jewish, “Of course, they’re all in Hollywood making millions from trashy movies”—is an exact replication of what happened one afternoon. I was stunned by her comment, horrified. Because my husband is Jewish, and I’ve also been involved in Jewish community activities in our city, I felt personally attacked.

In the poem I use several Yiddish expressions—“shiksa,” “seykhl,” “gevalt,” for instance—and I know that not all readers will know these terms. When I read the poem aloud at poetry readings, it’s Jewish listeners who respond with particular emotion, at times, even with tears. So although I certainly don’t want to exclude readers from that poem (or any of the other poems), I know that “Waking Over Call It Sleep” usually draws a particularly strong response from Jewish readers or listeners.

But another poem that may have a more limited readership is “Wang Wei in the Workshop.” That’s one I came close to omitting from the book, since friends’ reactions to it were divided, some thinking it was the weakest poem in the collection, and, with such short lines, its form is different from all the other poems. But I didn’t want to leave it out! Readers who know Wang Wei’s poems, especially those who know Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz’s 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, have told me they love the poem. So I left it in.

And of course, the first poem in the collection, “I Hate Telling People I Teach English,” contains another example of a reference not all readers or listeners will know. The ending of the poem, “pierced to the root,” is literally referring to my pain while trapped in the dentist’s chair. But those who know even a little Chaucer will recognize that my wording is also playing on Chaucer’s phrase “perced to the roote.” For these readers, I think the poem’s ending packs an extra punch.

AF: Speaking of the short lines in the Wang Wei poem, did you have any other technical issues you wrestled with?

WB: I became obsessed with making sure that the unindented lines were much longer than the indented lines, or vice-versa. I wanted the form to work visually. And I also began to insist that no poem contained a single end-stopped line. That self-imposed requirement drove me batty! But I wanted the poems to keep going, to have that breathless, “let me tell you this now” sort of feel.

For some of the poems, I wanted to use a series of continuing indented lines, and what made that so tricky was that not only did I want to avoid any end-stopped lines, but I also wanted to keep the form visually consistent, so that throughout the poem, all first lines of each “stanza” were about the same length, all second lines, and so on.

Drove me nuts, even up to the final proofreading stages. I guess you can see why, after I’d finished most of the poems in this collection, I turned again to prose poems!

AF: Do these poems feel like a kind of summa, that is, a definitive statement about your life’s work as a teacher? Or is there something you couldn’t yet include?

nothingbetweenusWB: These poems do feel like a kind of summa. And I don’t know that I have anything more to say about my own university teaching experiences, for now, at least. And Nothing Between Us describes my years in West Berkeley teaching ninth graders. But there’s one poem I’ve been struggling with and just can’t make work. It has to do with my experiences during my first year of teaching, in 1966, at Saguaro High School in Scottsdale, Arizona, when a group of bright juniors would stay after school and we’d all read e. e. cummings out loud together. What we didn’t realize was that our brand new high school bordered on an Indian reservation, whose kids couldn’t even live with their own parents, but were boarded in Phoenix at the “Indian School” and taught to forget their own language and customs. I want to keep revising this poem, finish it at some point.

AF: Were you able to dip into autobiography more deeply because your memories were framed by the work of literature you were teaching, or the class you’re describing? Can you cite an example?

WB: Often the work we were discussing in class brought back memories. For instance, in “The Morning After Our Second Ecopoetry Class,” I describe how reading and discussing Christopher Manes’ essay “Nature and Silence” helped to recall a night at Tortuguero hovering over a four-hundred-pound green sea turtle dropping her eggs into the sand while we watched, awed, and utterly silent. But the best example of the way a class discussion caused memories to leap into my mind—and uncomfortably so, interfering with my classroom concentration—would be “In the Seminar: Trying to Launch Passage to India.” Teaching Forster’s brilliant novel forced me to confront some experiences of which I’m not proud. Not only, as I say in the poem, was I “dealing with my own Anglophobia,” since my British mother was a bit of a snob, but I was also flung back to my first time traveling in India. Invited to give talks in various cities, I was traveling with Punjabi friends, and, with a rigorous travel schedule, I began to feel utterly overwhelmed. I became absolutely exhausted, sick of being singled out as the only tall, pale-skinned, gray-blond-haired person in sight, and ashamed of my middle-class Americanness, my lack of flexibility and resilience. So the teaching of Forster’s novel forced me to delve into some pretty uncomfortable and unflattering views of my own limitations.

AF: Do you have a favorite poem here? If so, why?

WB: This is a hard question to answer. I guess if I had to choose, I’d say the opening poem, “I Hate Telling People I Teach English,” and the closing poem, “The Last Time I Taught Robert Frost.” And each for entirely different reasons. “I Hate Telling People” began right after I had returned from a bone scan, and the first lines describe what had actually happened. It felt so good to write those beginning lines—cathartic, really, and I just kept going. As I continued drafting the poem, I began laughing out loud, really out loud. I’d never laughed while writing a poem, but with that one, I was howling! And most of the poem came directly from actual experiences. I can’t count the times I’ve had people tell me they have a novel already written in their head, but just need “someone like me / to work it up.” The ending of the poem, however, I fictionalized somewhat. No dentist ever recited Chaucer’s Prologue to The Canterbury Tales to me “while I lay back in his chair, open-mouthed, pierced to the root.” It was a donor to our Creative Writing Program who did, over the phone one afternoon while I was in my office. But deciding to make it a dentist led to the final line.

The Frost poem also came directly from an experience, but, as with so many of the poems in the collection, from a student’s comment in class. At the time, “lovely” was a word only just beginning to be used colloquially, and the Olivia in the poem was a very “with it” grad student. Today, my shock about hearing Frost’s poems described as “lovely” may seem a bit odd, since, I admit, I’ve even started using the word myself at times.

But teaching Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” has always been emotionally laden for me, probably because it was one of the poems my father, who in most ways was emotionally very distant, would recite after dinner. As a girl, I would sit listening on the sofa, rapt, and literally shiver. When he was dying, I wanted to recite that poem to him because I knew it was his all-time favorite, but for some reason, I just couldn’t—uncharacteristically, I became speechless. So teaching that poem, and reciting it with students always provides a kind of healing for me. I guess I want to feel we’re saying it aloud for my father, who really gave me poetry.

AF: Why do you think there are so few good poems about teaching, when so many poets teach? Or am I wrong, are there a lot of good poems on teaching I just haven’t found?

WB: Strange, isn’t it? You’d think that, since so many poets also teach, we’d have anthology after anthology of poems about the classroom. But I’m not aware of many other poems that reflect on teaching. I know David Kirby has mentioned experiences with students at times, and Kevin Clark has. And you have! There must be others. Let’s find them!

AF: Let’s say you have three strands of narrative going in most of these: the students’ reaction to the literary work, the speaker’s own associations and memories, and the story in the literary work being studied . . . what do you think each strand contributes to the others? Did you ever work on a poem and say, Oh, I didn’t include one of these and I should put it in . . . or weren’t you conscious of this as a kind of informal requirement?

WB: I was never conscious of such a requirement, though most often, the students, the literary work, and something of my own thoughts or experiences all worked their ways into a poem. But there are poems in the collection that don’t include all three strands. For instance, although “Truth, Beauty, and the Intro Workshop” alludes briefly to Milton, Keats, Auden, and Lawrence, the poem really focuses on my reaction to the “kid with the scarab tattoos” and my realization that I may have been wrong in my advice to him, that I too shared something of his longing for old-school beauty. “His Eyelashes Are Not Tarantulas” is a poem that explores my own embarrassed over-reaction to an incredibly handsome, charming male student’s silly poem. And “Rereading The Golden Bowl” only mentions teaching in passing toward the poem’s end, but begins by emphasizing how, actually, I would never want to teach this brilliant book.

AF: You end the poem “Coming to Cather,” about teaching My Antonia, with the phrase “and finally, I hear the symphony, whole again.” I think what moves me most about this book is the sense of a poet who is now in a position to take in the “whole” of her life as a kind of symphony, that is, as a gathering of past and present. Does a poem like this begin with memories of the ex-husband trying to farm, the “bad weather chewing on the marriage.” Or is it rereading Cather, and teaching the book, that invites the memories? I ask this because sometimes the recollections are so painful and strong––like the exhilaration and, at the same time, the feeling of self-degradation of the Italy trip in your youth that comes back in “Why I Dread Teaching The Sun Also Rises” or the anguish of your father’s last days in the ICU in “The Last Time I Taught Robert Frost” or even being taunted in second grade in “Waking Over Call It Sleep.”

WB: “Coming to Cather” got its start while teaching Cather’s novel. As I say in the poem, the students adored the book. But what really caused the poem to take off was hearing Mahler’s Fourth Symphony performed by the San Antonio Symphony, and then talking afterward with friends, one of whom described his own Czech immigrant ancestors who, in central Texas, built their own violins, violas, and cellos and had their own string quartet in central Texas. In the poem I change my friend’s name to “Charlotte,” making him one of the students.

But Mahler’s Fourth has always moved me to the core. And for years it was almost too painful for me to hear it, since it roused memories of my former marriage. Larry Barker was a brilliant musician and choral director, with a gorgeous tenor voice. And the modest acreage he and I bought when we first moved to Texas was beautiful—with grasses not unlike those of Cather’s Nebraska. However, I fictionalized the husband in the poem—Larry Barker didn’t play the viola, but sang, and wherever we lived, our house resonated with his music.

So writing the poem allowed, as you so wisely intuit, a real healing, although it necessitated a plunging into a new level of grief, which led to a kind of letting go. The ending of the poem was terribly difficult to get right. But finally, the poem seemed “whole.”

Your question is incredibly astute, and is helping me realize just how much pain I worked through in writing these poems. A few other poems refer to the anguish of incidents from my former, thirty-six-year marriage, though I fictionalized those episodes even more than I fictionalized my ex-husband in the Cather poem. But certainly by letting the past inform the present, in weaving the current experiences in the classroom together with often painful memories, I was able somehow to let go, to find a kind of peace. . . . So yes, all the strands of the weave, past and present, all the notes of the “symphony,” all the instruments, from the violins and flutes to the kettle drums. Major keys and minor.

AF: Finally, can you tell me how this book is related to aging? I’m thinking of the dilemma you describe in “I’m Not Sure the Cherry is the Loveliest of Trees” of whether to treat old age as a time to grab all the experiences you still can (like the woman who “traveled seven continents/ compiling a life list of eight thousand birds”) or a time to grab on to what is so familiar, and so loved, “the Mexican persimmon” in the yard, you “can’t begin to wrap your arms around”? In a way, both the teaching and the memories are like the persimmon, no? Something you can only try to grasp. Though, in another way, the hundreds of students, maybe thousands after so many years, are like the birds . . . always something new! Anyway, what’s your take on this?

WB: Once again, your insights are right on the money. I think the book is very much about aging. In 2008, when the poems that comprise the book really took off, I had just been named “Poet-in-Residence” at the University of Texas San Antonio, and had been granted a much-reduced teaching load (at a reduced salary, I must add). I was four years away from turning seventy, and feeling I should fully retire before long. As the poems progressed, I began to feel I was writing my way out of teaching and into retirement.

But in 2012, when I finished writing (but not revising) all the poems, I turned seventy, and realized I didn’t want to retire after all, that I would miss the students terribly. (I talk about this especially in “Next-to-Last Week in the Senior Workshop.”) So I teach one class a year now, thanks to our mensch of a dean and our department chair.

I see I’m avoiding your question. I know I can’t travel to seven continents any more. Maybe not even two or three. It’s one of the realities of aging, knowing that one’s energies are not what they once were, and that the time one has left is limited, and wanting to spend it carefully. (Interesting that I switched suddenly to using the impersonal and more formal “one” rather than “I”. . . .)

And yes, that exquisite Mexican Persimmon tree with its intricately intertwined branches—even that familiar tree holds complexities I will never grasp. Just as I can never truly know—intimately—any of the students, or any literary work as thoroughly as I’d like.

Perhaps “I’m Not Sure the Cherry Is the ‘Loveliest of Trees’” is getting at the realization that I’m no longer so interested in seeing far-away places superficially, but getting to know what’s closest as deeply as I can.

And oh, yes, the students are like the birds! Coming and going in my life, entering it for a semester and then gone. And I have to let go. Let go and let go and let go. As Daniel says in “In Our Class on Roethke,” “It’s hard to imagine / investing so much in something that won’t last.” “We learn,” the poem ends, “by going, as we go.” Pun intended.

AF: Thanks, Wendy.

WB: And gigantic thanks to you, Alan, for doing the interview!

Click here to purchase One Blackbird At A Time at your local independent bookstore
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Click here to purchase Nothing Between Us at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016

Latest Volcano

latestvolcanoTana Jean Welch
Marsh Hawk Press ($16)

by Greg Bem

In Latest Volcano, Tana Jean Welch reveals through poetry the gift and power of story. Each poem in this dense volume is lyrically defined by both narrative structure and holistic convergence of abstract and concrete. The presentation of characters, settings, and situations is as subtly beautiful as it is haunting, and leaves the reader inspired and in awe. These poems are gilt-lined, catching to the eye and the mind, and reminiscent of the broader circumstances found within everyday humanity.

Whether Welch’s protagonists lead the action or are caught in the spotlight, they are conduits for learning, innocence trumped and flushed out by a sense of experience. The lessons exhibit degrees of existentialism and maturity:

She learned to oscillate like the beam of a balance.
To swing backwards and forwards. To move
between two points. To vibrate and remember:
it’s not safety in numbers, but safety in movement.
To be vibrant, like the tiger butterfly
migrating during monsoon season.

Welch has crafted an intimacy that links these poems together; each reads with a respect for the pleasures and cruelties found in growing older, and many of the poems come from a female perspective. Some of the verse is rooted within the individual woman’s success or failure to channel the will and move through a complex situation; other poems paint broad pictures of a collaboration effort to move beyond limitations. In most cases, these poems operate from dynamic angles, evoking a powerful feminism that is as much about a revolutionized sense of self as it is about an independence and consolation with the world:

It was easy enough to let the taste of jelly
and rum escape, but I knew abstracting men
from memory was never my method. I pressed
the blade of the guillotine, cutting you
another cigar, and the round head fell
without regret to the feet of frogs.

Latest Volcano is composed of three sections, a structure that allows for a significant trajectory among the poems’ themes. The first section, “The Centaur’s Daughter,” brings together early encounters: there is a youthful and angry quality to these poems, though their caustic energy does not limit or restrict the resolute wisdom within. The book’s middle, “Cannon Splinter,” is filled with poems of joy. Degrees of liberating sexual freedom are striking features:

and the pounding and the pounding
like an orgasm to wake all neighboring armies:
like thunder and rain, a black blizzard, a charged sky
I heard myself coming until my throat was sore

The book closes with “Dragon-Dance,” a sequence with a sense of complexity that trumps expectation, both in narrative elements and also language: here the speakers of the book turn naturally and readily undefinable. Poem forms vary. Themes vary. The diffusion is the result of a poet bringing in the broader view, achieving a state of acceptance of life’s chaos:

God willing each poet devises
her own death. Bottle. Bridge.
Broiler. We bury the dead in dark
wool and satin, say a prayer
before takeoff, and send
your mother a field of lilies
without concern of withering.

Overall, Welch’s poems remain challenging, above and below their surfaces. Loud or quiet, these poems evoke a sense of the powerful and the affective. There is an enjoyable and inspiring contrast between the stories therein: some include resolution, while others merely describe the experiential process and the messy, inconclusive results. That Welch has focused on such a wide and open realm of human existence ensures many readers will find these poems approachable again and again.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016

Liner Notes

linernotesJames Brubaker
Subito Press ($18)

by Alex K. Hughes

James Brubaker’s Liner Notes, a collection of thirteen stories, explores a fascination with music and pop culture. A jazz musician who has lost memory of his musical talents, a museum curator who habitually acquires the wrong historical items, and the renowned Brian Wilson make appearances. To the protagonists, music is more than a hobby; it is the way they understand the world and try to protect themselves from inevitable pain. However, their successes are often only temporary.

In “Four Walls Won’t Hold You,” Derek is caught in the middle of parental disputes and abuse. Torn between acceptance and futile action, he escapes into the world of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the songs of which parallel his life: “The lyrics are simple and urgent. . . . about being trapped and needing to escape so bad that walls can’t hold him. . . . You don’t understand how a city can wink, or sigh, or have a heartbeat, but you know about the four walls.” And yet the cassette can only last so long, the ribbon can only stretch so far. The story reminds readers that reality always encroaches. This knowledge could be devastating, but music exists beyond the tangible. It can be carried in memory or produced in hums. The destruction of the object can never destroy the positive impact.

The best stories in Liner Notes pair the melancholy with manic energy. Take “Flavor Flav Travels Through Time and Reads About Himself on Wikipedia,” where the titular hype man and reality TV star finds himself unstuck in time. An unlikely Billy Pilgrim, Flavor Flav relives missed opportunities in childhood, untapped musical prowess, and his seventy-fifth birthday—trapped in a nursing home, but loved by his daughter. The story, a prime example of Brubaker’s reality-bending fiction, rises beyond satire and science fiction, even while it balances absurd humor and space captains. The utterly human portrait of Flavor Flav takes center stage, and the easy caricature associated with so many reality TV episodes is ignored.

While having a deep knowledge of obscure music and popular culture may enrich the reading experience, Liner Notes largely succeeds on its own merits: crafted human figures and a spiraling use of dove-tailed language. At the end of “Haunted Resonance: A Memoir”—a hypothetical story wherein Brubaker tries to pick his wife’s eulogy song—he confronts the terror of having “nothing. No wife. No song.” Each sentence builds, twisting the ones before. When the final words run down the page, a crummy pop song becomes a landmark throughout his life, a tune now impossible to hear without the flooding memories of emotional decades. Brubaker’s exploration of the meaning that could be incites us to consider what is arguably the point of a good song or a good story: to feel connected.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016

The Coyote’s Bicycle

coyotesbicycleKimball Taylor
Tin House Books ($26.95)

by Emily Loberg

In The Coyote’s Bicycle, the U.S.-Mexico border transforms into both a living creature with a pulsing magnetism and an imaginary architecture of the mind. It is a wall that grows and changes, as each American presidency adds to its fortifications and as migrants carve holes and mark it up with graffiti. It is a wall that draws people in and divides families who come together for picnics on either side, unable to touch. Yet it is also a concept, a permeable barrier built of laws and ideas. As author Kimball Taylor reflects, “so much went on here that went unseen, part of this border edifice had to be constructed in the mind.”

Into this world walks El Indio. Stepping off the bus from his home in Oaxaca with very little money in his pockets, he abandons his intentions of joining his family in San Diego. Instead, he scopes out the border and recruits migrants for Roberto, a former migrant who left his dishwashing job in the U.S. to become a coyote. With Roberto’s sister Marta as his life and business partner, El Indio goes on to build a smuggling operation that guides thousands of migrants across the U.S.-Mexico border on bicycles.

Taylor, discovering the multitudes of bicycles abandoned on the other side, becomes obsessed with finding out where they came from. With help from El Negro, a deportee working at a municipal bathroom in Tijuana, Taylor dives into the world of the migrants and coyotes. Through his words the roles of the borderland business come alive, from el gancho, who distracts the Border Patrol agents from the migrants as they prepare to cross, to el levantón, the getaway driver waiting to meet the migrants in the U.S.

Hoping for a clue to their origin, Taylor follows the bicycles after their abandonment, charting their route through police auctions, prisons, and movie studios that create facilities for military training. During his exploration of the bicycles’ histories of theft and new ownership, Taylor always comes back to the migrants and their ride across the border:

I pictured the migrants he’d described, waiting for a signal. I imagined a wave or a whistle. The cyclists’ feet leaving the ground and finding the pedals; sprockets and chains engaged; balance in momentum; the dark maw of the culverts admitting a pinprick of distant light; the tunnel vision; the awful, damp smell of the pipes. And then they were gone; they’d left my imagination and rolled into the very same portals that carried silt, sewage, appliances, refuse, lost and mislaid items downstream.

Though this is El Indio’s story, the bicycles serve as its vehicle, with sprockets and spokes opening and closing the narrative. Like the book’s characters, the bicycles are continually drawn to the border. As Taylor writes, “My guess was that even a spiritual journey needed a new set of inner tubes and some brake cables now and again.”

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016

Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century

exitrightDaniel Oppenheimer
Simon and Schuster ($28)

by Mark Dunbar

Although only David Oppenheimer’s first book, Exit Right conveys the work of an experienced hand. With a wealth of research and emotional obedience, Oppenheimer brilliantly traces the pre-conversion stories of six of 20th-century America’s most impactful political creatures: Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham, Ronald Reagan, Norman Podhoretz, David Horowitz, and Christopher Hitchens. If not already clear from the book’s title, the ideological trajectory of each subject is one from the Left to the Right, which in the case of at least Chambers and Hitchens appears not to have been wholly synonymous with a move from radicalism to conservatism. In one of his many lugubrious and doom-ridden epistles to William F. Buckley, Chambers claimed himself “a counter-revolutionist” and “a man of the Right” who “shall vote the straight Republican ticket for as long as I live”—but, nonetheless, “not a conservative.” For his part, Hitchens responded with viperish disdain anytime a pundit introduced him as a conservative, self-identifying until he died from throat cancer in 2011 as “no longer a socialist” but “still a Marxist.” Much mentioned but little discussed in the book, however, is that with the exception of perhaps Reagan, all six weren’t so much compelled over by conservative rhetoric and argumentation as they were simply turned off by what they saw as left-wing cowardice and betrayal.

According to his own recollections, Chambers became a Communist after reading Lenin’s The Soviets at Work and, then immersing himself in the more theoretical literature of the Bolshevik Party. Compelled by “the reek of life” coming off the works he was taking in, Chambers in 1925 joined the American Communist Party—“a dollhouse version of its Russian model”—staying a member of the Russian offshoot for thirteen years and remaining faithful to it for approximately eleven.  While not denying Chambers’ own interpretation of what first attracted him to Communism, Oppenheimer also isn’t shy about proposing what might have been additional appeals for Chambers: mainly, the ecclesiastical structure of the party and the demagogic manner of its leaders, who were, according to Oppenheimer, “uncontaminated by irony, tolerance, and most of the other liberal values that had so conspicuously failed to anchor Chambers when he was at Columbia.”

What was it that lured Chambers away from the party in particular and Communism in general? We find his departure requiring no special seductions from the outer realm of opposing ideologies. Bullied by his bosses either to go underground and begin espionage work in Washington or to leave the party altogether, then well placed to see those same bosses peevishly called to the Soviet Union for humiliation and imprisonment by Stalin, Chambers at last had the power to face the deliberate sadism he had for years supported and defended. “I deliberately deserted from the Communist Party in a way that could leave no doubt in its mind, or anybody else’s, that I was at war with it and everything it stood for.”

A special incentive must have been in place over the years for those willing, in their commentaries and analyses, to describe Chambers as “Dostoevskian” or “Manichean,” for the yield for such intellectual harvests was always abundant. Craftily, Oppenheimer picks out the same sentiments without actually using the eponyms. In place of the first we have, “He had a weakness for the grand gesture, the spontaneous life-altering act, the doomed but courageous stand.” And standing in for the second, “When he believed in something, he believed it all the way down.” Both are true of Chambers, and both explain why his departure from the Communist Left couldn’t have landed him anywhere but where it did. Not attracted to the well-fed Right of Reagan’s stage-handlers at General Electric, nor the unaligned Left of Bertrand Russell and George Orwell that Hitchens so lionized, Chambers embraced an embattled and eschatological worldview that pivoted almost exclusively around the Cold War and anti-Communism. Speaking with the solemnity of an Old Testament prophet, Chambers could (and did) write as if casting a vote for General Eisenhower in 1956 was an act of social and spiritual rebellion. He wondered why it was so hard to find fellow-travelers in the fight against Soviet Communism who weren’t crackpots or expansionists. Others might perhaps wonder with merit as well.

What can be said of Chambers—that he abandoned the intellectual sclerosis and frivolous sectarian passions of the Left rather than reached out for the self-pitying and short-sighted conditions of the Right—can be said for Burnham, Podhoretz, Horowitz, and Hitchens also. Even Reagan during his days in Hollywood multi-tasking as an actor, war-time propagandist, FBI informant, intra-committee consultant, and occasional speech-giver, experienced first-hand the trite and fanatical reproaches of the soon-to-be black-listed liberals. Elected as a vice-president for the Screen Actors Guild in 1946, Reagan advocated for “neutrality” in the labor disputes going on at the time between the craft unions and producers—which “in practice meant taking the side of the producers.” Inevitably, neutrality won out, credited by Oppenheimer in part to the “magnificent” and “persuasive” speech Reagan gave during a general meeting to vote on the official position SAG should take regarding the matter. He was henceforth attacked as a “fascist, company man, [and] Red-baiter,” and “with each slur . . . that was hurled at him it became easier . . . to ignore the rhetorical and physical violence that was being done by his own side.” The “rhetorical and physical violence being done by his own side” is an interesting and worth-telling story in itself. Oppenheimer only briefly mentions them, but they include deceit, heavy-handedness, and coordination with law enforcement and “the leaders of the local Teamsters union to have heavies on hand to physically break through the picket lines.” Evidently spastic college professors aren’t the only ones who need a bit of muscle from time to time.

In 1933 Burnham joined the American Workers Party, which by the next year had merged with the Communist League of America, the main Trotskyist outfit at the time. By 1935 he was one of the two or three most important American Trotskyists, corresponding regularly with the Old Man himself on theoretical matters as well as practical organizational ones. By 1937 he had informally established his own minority clique within the party (as was the case with nearly all radical parties, it had by then splintered apart, merged with other parties, infiltrated those other parties, and renamed itself in almost equal proportion to its official roll-call) that sought for Stalin’s land bifurcation of Poland with Hitler to be formally denounced as a “war of imperial conquest” and for the Soviet Union to lose the nomenclature of a “workers state”—degenerated or otherwise. Trotsky, whose History of the Russian Revolution was for Burnham what Lenin’s Soviets at Work was for Chambers, worried that with the Soviet Union went his personal legacy and world-historical significance, and thus mocked Burnham as a “petty-bourgeois intellectual” who was afraid of the tough and ever-shifting realities of revolutionary politics, masking his capitulation as mere pragmatism. A resolution was called for on both of Burnham’s conceptual issues; both were defeated, 55-31. Trotsky then bullied the minority clique into a corner, giving them a choice of either committing wholeheartedly to the newly reaffirmed party positions or giving up their leadership roles altogether. Humiliated by the choices and tired of defending his social enemies (Stalinism and the Soviet Union) against what he considered reasonable criticisms, Burnham left the party by the year’s end.

Similar narratives fit the remaining three. Podhoretz was a friend of the beats and counter-culturalists in his days as the young editor of Commentary in the 1960s. Struggling through years of failed book projects, he eventually completed a young man’s memoir in unabashed praise of fame and success. Both his friend Jason Epstein and mentor Lionel Trilling warned him against publishing it. Trilling went so far as calling it a “gigantic mistake” and advised Podhoretz to “put it away and do not let others see it.” Norman Mailer claimed in private that he liked it, then half-heartedly denounced it in his review.  Jackie Kennedy “broke off relations after she read it.” And Stanley Kauffmann scoffed at it in the New Republic, “An apologist for fame ought to be a better judge of it.” Podhoretz became depressed, started drinking more, and on some accounts began a lifestyle of promiscuity. He drifted more and more into misanthropy at the same time that the student movements were emerging, and their more-radical-than-thou attitude made Podhoretz even more misanthropic until his mood metastasized into an ideology—one he would hold onto for the rest of his life.

Hitchens is undoubtedly the most interesting case of all Oppenheimer’s subjects, not only because his political conversion happened so late in his life (despite popular right-wing myth, Reagan was not so late to conservatism as many believe, being propositioned as early as 1941 to run for Congress as a Republican) but also because it happened so quickly and so jarringly. It seemed to many as if Hitchens had transformed from radical wit to state department shill overnight.

This wasn’t the case however, as Oppenheimer tries to demonstrate. Hitchens had already distanced himself from the Left on many issues well before the attacks of September 11th. As Oppenheimer puts it, “He didn’t care that much about most of the mundane injustices of the first world.” In fact, Hitchens practiced only contempt for the cultural hostilities and identity-driven grievances of the 1990s, mocking calls for politically-correct euphemisms and bashing those on the Left “who view the history of North America as a narrative of slavery and genocide.” Even on the issues that mattered to him, he often thought that the Left was getting it wrong. On NAFTA, for instance, he argued that it was a waste of time concerning one’s self with the undemocratic technicalities of the deal, since energy should be devoted to the undemocratic system at-large that made the deal possible to begin with. “If the world is one economy, why not make it one society? I look forward to the argument on this. What I won't do is spend ten seconds on the argument as to whether a plant should be in Michigan or Ontario, or for that matter in California or Tijuana.” This radical out-flanking was exactly the sort done by the student movements in the 1960s that so turned off Podhoretz and many others to causes with which they might have otherwise sympathized. It was also the sort of moral and ideological grand-standing that Chambers had detected in the various Communist groups and diagnosed as a perverse form of fatalism—if not escapism.

There are, of course, missed opportunities in the book. For example, more could have been done on the connections and relationships between the six subjects. The chapter on Hitchens is the last biographical one of the book, and while Oppenheimer attempts a brief reconciliation of his cast, much worth putting in is left out. Hitchens respected Burnham’s comprehensive knowledge of Marxism, which Oppenheimer makes reference to, but he also knew that Burnham never got over his power-serving ways (“His real desire was not to combat dictatorship and expansionism but to emulate them”), which Oppenheimer doesn’t. In addition, no mention is made of the odd praise Hitchens steeped on Chambers in the article he wrote for the Washington Post in 1987 covering Horowitz’s “Second Thoughts Conference,” a weekend conference in D.C. “for former radicals who had come to see the error of their left-wing ways”: “Whittaker Chambers, as some people forget, was a considerable and complicated figure who . . . would have been denounced as a faintheart and advocate of half-measures if he had made more than a spectral appearance at this fervent gathering.” This is odd not so much for its content but because Hitchens throughout his career almost never mentions Chambers again. Even in his review of Sam Tanenhaus’s famous biography of Chambers, Hitchens spends most the piece recollecting personal interactions with Alger Hiss and cataloguing the Left’s failed reactions to the Cold War.

Then there are more thematic and conceptual questions, such as what exactly does Oppenheimer mean when he uses terms like Left and Right? Is the Right simply the ideological front of the status quo? If the Left is a force for fundamental radical change, what of Leszek Kołakowski’s thesis that it can no longer claim its own namesake because of banality and inertia?

Finally, each of the biographical chapters in the book only goes up until the individual’s moment of conversion, then abruptly ends. It would have been both informative and enlightening to read up on the post-conversion lives of each, as well as how their change of heart effected the style and mood they took with their former allies. Exit Right is in this sense at least six chapters too short. An idea for Oppenheimer’s next book perhaps? In other words, here’s hoping this isn’t his last.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016

Vox Populi

voxpopuliVirginia Konchan
Finishing Line Press ($14.49)

by Larry Sawyer

Virginia Konchan's chapbook Vox Populi is a long poem divided into sections, each a distinct celebration of a letter of the alphabet. From the moment the reader embarks upon this voyage with the letter A (“A is for amoeba, autocorrect of the leitmotif, / asset price bubbles, aristocracy and architecture . . .”) it becomes clear that this poem is a celebration of the various.

This poem is as much a subversion of hierarchy (showing its biomorphism rather than its vertical linearity) as it is a volley aimed at the increasingly fashionable world of prosaic poetry. Pulled into its gravitational field, the reader feels herself willfully suspending all else to become awash in its wallop:

D is for dynasty, enlightened despots in fluted collars
waving white kerchiefs from a balcony, sacrificial
ablutions performed by Alyosha Karamazov,
sainthood and its double, demonology,
inscribed in Dostoevskian tomes.

and later in the same poem:

D is the decision
we make to love the dustbowl that is
the stalled engine of the duct tear

Vox Populi takes risks and covers vast distances in world history, illustrating its depth of knowledge, yet retains its simple love of the mellifluousness of the right words in right places. It celebrates the electric current of language, becoming most alive when it revels in the miracle of language with use of assonance, consonance, alliteration, and onomatopoeia.

The speaker, if there is a traditional speaker in this poem, is a disembodied singer, listing our more recent woes (“F is for failure of fiduciary funds”) and also those ancient (“Abraham's inexorable hand/severed the head of the lamb”). This is not so much a speech-based poetics but more of an elevated and sophisticated gesture that gathers momentum and stands as a monumental compendium of the vernacular. Its joys may not be readily apparent, as the nuances and crevices in this type of writing reveal themselves only gradually as each steep cliff face is scaled. Here is one of the sections in its entirety:

K is for Tennyson's Kraken:
cretin emerging, without fins,
from watery climes. Klimt's fame
sealed with his 1908 painting
The Kiss, housed in Vienna at the
Österreichische Galerie Belvedere.
K: the only letter to keep a straight
back with its two remaining limbs
squall, rooting for a truce between
hyla ("from the forest": paper, fuel)
and squid ink of Apollonic altitude.
The sun's dimmer switch, Jupiter,
kvetches: beta-god self-berating
as it keens toward oblivion (air).

To imagine the letter K as a spectral figure in a battle of writing between paper and ink leads me to believe this is a poet for whom language serves as more than just a scaffold for what one has to "say." Thank god! The beautiful truths in this chapbook involve human priorities and a struggle for equilibrium in a world that is in flux.

Despite its abecedarian structure, Vox Populi is refreshingly free of gimmicks. The poet relies on the brilliance inherent in the language to illustrate salient points and doesn't shock for the mere sake of doing so. This is, indeed, a poetry of restraint, but it imparts a mystique that could be described as wanton and wild, although still cerebral. Polish Hasidim believed that a "pneuma" (spirit breath) lived in the pages of the most sacred texts; the pages of this witty 26-part poem exhale the breezes of the natural world when all the pages of history are being blown away before our eyes.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016

Surging toward Abjection: An Interview with Alan Sondheim

alansondheim1by Maria Damon and Murat Nemet-Nejat

Alan Sondheim is a new media artist, musician, writer, and performer concerned with issues of virtuality and the stake that the real world has in the virtual. He has worked with his partner, Azure Carter, and the performer/ choreographer Foofwa d'Imobilité. Sondheim examines the grounds of the virtual and how the body is inhabited. Since January of 1994, Sondheim has worked on the "Internet Text," a continuous meditation on philosophy, psychology, language, body, and virtuality; the Internet Text is coordinated with multi-media work on various websites. A pioneer in the field of electronic literature, he coined the term “codework” to signify the multiple ways in which computer coding language itself becomes part of the diegetics of the immanent text. He performs in virtual, real, and cross-over worlds; his virtual work is known for its highly complex and mobile architectures. He has used altered motion-capture technology extensively for examining and creating new lexicons of behavior. His current work is centered around the phenomenology of terrorism and anguish, and their cultural expression.

Because Sondheim’s range is so wide, it can be approached from many perspectives and it reflects many obsessions, intellectual and aesthetic currents and traditions, and concepts of embodiment. Two colleagues coming from very different preoccupations—Murat Nemet-Nejat, poet and translator with an interest in the apocalyptic, and Maria Damon, scholar with an interest in the abject, the fringe, and the “wasted”—teamed up to ask Sondheim a few questions in relation to his work in general and to surge, a recent work, in particular.

Sondheim’s work can be viewed here:

surge text: http://www.alansondheim.org/surge.txt
email archive: http://sondheim.rupamsunyata.org/
music: http://www.espdisk.com/alansondheim/
most recent texts: http://www.alansondheim.org/tr.txt
http://www.alansondheim.org/ts.txt
http://www.alansondheim.org/tt.txt
http://www.alansondheim.org/tu.txt


Maria Damon opened with some basic and general questions about method and intent:

Maria Damon: I was first drawn to your work by the emotional rawness, the insightful and literary exposition of the abject. One of my favorite pieces of yours was the seemingly simple "Wath You," in which a series of simple repetitions were weirdly torqued by searching-and-replacing one vowel with another: "A hate you. A really really hate you. A love you. A lake you a lattle bat." That the complexities of a relationship could be captured in repetitive, minimalist vocabulary and an infantile level of exposition, combined with the defamiliarization of a vowel shift effected by a simple word-processing function, completely captivated me. At the time I didn't know you were a multi-faceted artist-writer-theorist. I thought you were some kind of anomalous eccentric, without context, an “outsider writer”; such is the strange world of listservs and online community. As I got to know your work I realized how it synthesizes many orders of being; for example, in one piece you transform actual dancers' duets into strangely dismembered Second Life gyrations, accompanied by music on a variety of manically played (by you) stringed instruments. The "live" iterations of your work—pieces in which you play your instruments, Azure Carter sings her trancelike dirges based on your work, and Foofwa D'Immobilité thrashes brilliantly on the floor—have always been my favorite, but I find exceptionally compelling your explanations of how you build the virtual work, layer by layer by layer.

So, in light of this background, can you say a bit about your relationship to the simple and the complex? A huge question, I know, but very basic.

Alan Sondheim: I'm not sure where to begin. Years ago, Victor Weisskopf wrote about the "quantum ladder," how different levels of reality might be somewhat analyzable as internally coherent—so for example, a great deal of chemistry can be done without considering particle physics. Herbert Simon wrote about "nearly decomposable hierarchies," thinking along parallel lines. So what might be complex on one level is simple on another; in computer programming, for example, there are higher level languages that coalesce or cover up the details of lower level ones (all the way down to the movement of electrons in integrated circuits). I tend to think this way, but I also bring into play the idea of the abject, the dissolution or corrosion of any of these schemes. The abject is entangled, tawdry, sleazy; it's the realm of death, of anguish, of sexuality, of slaughter and scorched earth policies. It's as if death and sexuality reared their heads (bad metaphor). The digital domain seems to me to be always already corporate, governed by protocols, and a clean and proper body; it's fetishized, tied to consumerism, to the clever, to fast-forward culture (the “surge” which is always ahead, which never looks back, which is the promise and premise of eternity), and so forth.

So I'm interested, if one might consider digital culture a kind of game space or mapping space, in the edge spaces that are always there, hidden. The digital manifolds, in other words, are leaky, full of holes, hackable; they're not closed. If you think of digital manifolds as so many objects presenting an appearance of closure, of totality, you might also think of their falling-apart, their ruptures, and it's the abject, which we inhabit, that is the subject and object of the manifolds. This is where complexity and entanglement, where liquidity and soft worlds, are manifest; they're found in the edge spaces and throughout the porous world/s. I work in these spaces, around virtual worlds, around coherent language and coherent coding. I'm frightened of them, have nightmares about them, am aroused by them, am horrified by the miseries of anguish and genocide, the meat/muscles/brains/organs/tissues of bodies; at the same time, sexuality, sports, hysterias, can rise to the level of exaltation within similar domains. In these areas complexity and simplicity break down altogether, not that they're entangled, but that the symbolic itself, the ability to construct and deploy language/s, no longer functions; one's left with the cry. The cry is at the center and periphery of my work; how can it be otherwise? There are issues around such, from the exterior, within other manifolds, issues about geopolitics, the environment, gender, representation, and so forth—the usual issues, but grounded or floated here around absolute darkness on one hand, and the illusory light of the digital on the other.

MD: Being a polymath, do you ever experience conflict between your many modes of artistic practice—playing music, writing words, designing visual effects—or are they seamlessly integrated for you? How do you layer a piece?

AS: This is a really good question, going to the heart of things. For me, every piece, whether writing or mixed-mode or music, is an open world; even in the music, there are always serious philosophical concerns which can be expressed that way. For example, the guzheng pieces are played on both sides of the bridges; one side is in-tune, and the other side supports the in-tune side. But that support also represents (as I wrote) a kind of abject musical field, which can undercut or form part of a “tonal sea” with the other; they're in dialogue, if not dialectic. That fascinates me, as to those precursor moments in dance or music when performers are “getting ready” to perform, and I've made films of them—they're not liminal, in-between, moments, but moments beforehand where the breath is held.

The same is true in my writing, whether I'm using computer programming or not—there's always a moment of entering the literary-philosophical thicket.

For me, then, these aren't separate modes, but moments that wash over one another, create skeins of associations. The images work the same for me—for example, with the guzheng, I had, at least in one piece, put up images of blood-red shelf mushrooms that were decaying, intensely; they'll survive that way through the winter! So there is form and abject exhaustion in their raggedness, but also hope!

alansondheimguitar
There are also issues of available tech, which, as an independent writer/new media artist, I face constantly. Occasionally I'm given access to university equipment—the Cave at Brown (a 3-d immersive environment), motion-capture equipment at NYU and Columbia College Chicago, and, years ago, a whole host of virtual environment equipment at the West Virginia University in Morgantown. I'm grateful for these opportunities, but they don't last; as a result, I see my work as reliant on “available tech”; I try to work with whatever I'm given at a particular point in time. That’s limiting of course; for example, universities are moving towards immersive virtual reality with Oculus Rift and other technologies, and people I know are using these devices in virtual worlds. But because I have no access to these things, I find my research outdated in some ways—I can think of so many things I'd like to do! At least with writing, music, the imminence of virtual worlds, and codework programming, I can act somewhat on my own, and investigate writing, writing technologies, philosophy, and so forth, with limited means.

The modes of artistic expression, I want to emphasize, are really integrated for me. If I had access to an improvisatory real/virtual opera company, I'd be all set. So the work I do is deeply driven by what, for me, are “serious” concerns, and then the products/productions follow suit. (Most of the productions are stepping-stones, not finished pieces, but, like jazz solos, work always already in progress; there's a deep dynamics involved.)

MD: You're so torrentially productive, posting every day across a variety of online platforms, that it seems perhaps a bit strange to ask you the standard questions about having a creative practice, but I will. Is there such a thing as "inspiration" in your practice? Or is it anxious compulsion in the face of catastrophe? And how do you "go about it" on a daily basis? Do you think "I'm going to create x or y today" when you get up? How does the sitting-down-to-do-it come about?

AS: There's definitely inspiration. Most often I'm following a line that stems from thinking (or trying to think) philosophically; sometimes, for example with the virtual world work, I've been curious about, and experimenting with, “arrangements”—situations with extreme parameters, for example—attempting to see what will fly in terms of a new (virtual) physics or avatar behavior. This can be quite methodological. But at the bottom of this, there is definitely that “anxious compulsion in the face of catastrophe”—how can one make sense of this world of slaughter, overpopulation, extinctions, religious absolutisms, migrants, the rise again of totalitarian tendencies? I work towards and through these issues as best I can. I am also inordinately fearful of death, always feeling, as far back as I can remember, that I'm running on thin ice, that death is imminent and immanent, that if I have an idea or concept to think through, work upon, I should do it now.

On occasion dreams play a role; the piece/s I put up today, for example, are based on a dream I had, in which I asked our cat, who died six days ago, "dear ossi, today is the day you stop the wind"—and I began thinking about the artificial weathers in virtual worlds, how they blow things around, how that can be controlled. I wanted to see what the control felt like, when complexity overwhelmed weather, and I made works like these:

http://www.alansondheim.org/stopthewind06.jpg
http://www.alansondheim.org/stopthewind.mp4

I worked furiously at the stopthewind video; someone was coming over, and I needed to finish this! The whole thing from start to finish took only an hour. But the thought that went into it lasted all night, and before that, working elsewise with these themes.

If I'm working with music, it's very different; I'll practice at times for a long time, tuning an instrument (and some of the ones I play are difficult to tune), preparing to record it; if (rarely) programs are involved, I will still record live, if at all possible. The music, as I pointed out, also has philosophical implications for me, and I'll develop this in the playing, tuning, writing, program if I'm using one, etc. And I'll record in the middle of the night when everything is silent—when, to be a bit romantic, the world can speak through a dialogue with an instrument, myself, and as little as possible between.

Finally, the most difficult thing is always the writing; at times it uses code, and I have programs I've written that act as catalysts for thinking about things. I cull from the writing I've already done, rearrange things, create a discourse on the run, and use that text, as well as straight-forward somewhat philosophical descriptions of what I'm doing. I'm fearful of sounding naïve or ignorant, of going off-track, of not sufficiently understanding the mathematical concepts, for example, that influence me so much (geometries, categories, networks, logics, etc.). So the writing is really difficult for me; I hope I write things that might be read in the future as a kind of contribution to a certain kind of philosophical thinking, if any of my work survives at all. The writing is the interiority of everything I do.

And I write anytime, even at a local cafe; I bring a netbook or tablet with me for that, so I'm out of the house, so to speak, working in isolation in the midst of strangers, but taking comfort in their presence. The daily tasks Azure and I do drop away, the dialogue is made somehow simpler on a small and intimate screen.

alanazure

Azure and Alan

My work has always been driven by a sense of wonder, a sense of what-if? The “what-if” often involves the idea of edges, glitches, striding across barriers, just to see what will happen. This sense is also reflected in the images we take of fungi, in work I've done with very low frequency and crystal radios, and so forth. It's also involved in playing traditional instruments in new but respectful ways, in playing music as quickly as possible—what am I capable of doing? And it's where a real excitement lies for me; the fecundity of the world constantly makes itself felt in this regard.

I must add that I would not be able to do any of this without Azure Carter, my partner; together we have a dwelling, home, habitus, not an emptied space that would otherwise send me reeling with its harshness.

At this point, Murat Nejet-Nemat focused the interview on a particular, and recent, piece, surge; his questions come from a writer’s point of view. Both MD and MNN agree that metaphysical concerns are very much part of Sondheim’s work:

Murat Nemet-Nejat: I think its metaphysical dimension is essential to understanding your work in its totality, rather than as individual performances or acts. My intention in starting with the idea of the apocalypse was to show how exquisitely you are attuned to the movements in our time, and especially their nightmarish and farcical extremes—both the massacres in Syria and our electoral primary season being expressions of it. I see surge both as a reflector of and a visceral antidote to these conditions, both a victim and a Cassandra. In what follows, I use the words "apocalypse" and "rapture" deliberately because religious discourse is an integral part of events in the world, be it with ISIS or the Syrian Civil War or European immigrants or American politics. Contrary to having zero connection, I see surge as a visceral revolt against extremeness by presenting a contra, a subjective abjective of extreme suffering. The idea of the apocalypse, as an ending beyond an ending, seems to be crucial in your work. Do you agree with this assessment? If so, what does apocalypse mean to you? What are the origins of this impulse—if there are any—personal, historical, ethical, ecological, etc.? How does it affect the direction or substance of your work?

AS: The apocalypse always seems to entail a religious ontology; I don't think that way, but rather in terms of a slow corruption, abjection; abjection underlies everything I write about. Abjection will always have its denouement in the cold death of the universe, perhaps in proton decay, something beyond comprehension, except theoretically, the manipulation of symbols, metaphors, which themselves are undermined. I have no impulse that I know of towards the apocalyptic; what sort of impulse would that be, except for thinking of a general conflagration? The apocalyptic draws me nowhere; it's part of the reason I think of anguish, which has no resolution, no beginning and no ending, no ending beyond an ending, etc. In my work, thinking of scorched earth, genocide, scorching of scorched earth, etc., is thinking of a dissolution. If anything, and this is of interest to me, my work is anti-apocalyptic, since it does not entail belief, and belief underlies apocalypse. There is none, there are the murked waters of anguish and abjection, that's all. That's the heart of it for me.

MNN: The title surge is very fascinating because it has multiple—some of them completely contradictory—meanings, some of which you yourself develop/exploit in the work. "Surge" means an increase; but also, as the root of the word "surgery," it implies "cutting out," a diminution. You have an entire section devoted to surgical (undoing) processes.

AS: Surge cuts, flows outwards, covers the ground with troops and bodies; above all, it transforms everything, everything. On a techno-political level, I think of it as an exponential increase of knowledge, tools, networks, flows. Fernando Zalamea points out that the last three decades have resulted in more mathematical knowledge than the previous two thousand years; in cosmology, I think one might make a claim that the past twenty years have superseded everything that came before. So how does one deal with this? If we were born ten years ago, we would have no problem at all; the surge would be the norm; one would live within the exponential. That's where I want to be, where I hope to be—within this brutal increase that is at the heart of all there is, a world of continual supersession. You can see the relation to scorching here; it's not all pleasant.

MNN: Also, as I began reading the work, for some reason I was continuously reminded of the concept of rapture. Is surge an anti-rapture rapture?

AS: As with “apocalypse” I associate “rapture” with religious or spiritual connotations; I can't see much of a relationship with my own work at all. I know people who find the idea of rapture fundamental; as an atheist I don't know how to respond to this. I draw my inferences from books on extinctions, ecologies, cosmologies, etc.; religion seems dangerous.

MNN: The third question has to do with the very powerful image accompanying surge. I am assuming it is a digital photo of a black hole in the sky, an image that obviously resonates with the text. Was this image completely "found" or did you in some way have to manipulate it—more than merely framing it—for the "right effect"? This question is important to me because, in your work in general, I sense two powerful, yet contradictory impulses/ideas. On the one hand, respecting and feeling for the otherness of others—bombed children in foreign lands, animals, plants, molecules, star dust, etc.—is absolutely crucial for you. On the other hand, you believe in an ontology—the real/reality in our modern world is virtual, embodied (if I understand you correctly) in avatars. Does this contradiction resonate for you, and if so, how do you deal with or resolve it, if at all?"

AS: There are two images, http://www.alansondheim.org/0000.jpg and http://www.alansondheim.org/1111.jpg; both are constructed from avatars I've created (you can't photograph a black hole, only the effects in any case). The images act as framing devices; there's a nod to the star-child in 2001, but something else goes on in them, an uncanny perturbance. They're uncomfortable.

In regard to ontology, the term is problematic, given particle physics and cosmology. I don't think the real/reality in our world is virtual, but perhaps tending towards the opposite; the virtual is part and parcel of the real (something pointed out by Heinz von Foerster years ago, in his notion that negation was inherent in organism). Avatars for me—in the sense of virtual world avatars—are functions, projections, and introjections, something I think of in terms of flows, “jectivity” in general. So they're a site for research of sorts, if the experiential can be considered research at all.

I don't see a contradiction in any case; the real and virtual are inextricably entangled; one can feel and act on compassion, empathy, political impulse, and still believe in a certain abject and fuzzy organization of the world. But this also depends on how “world” is defined; there are “worlds” of belief, for example. For me, I basically believe in broad-based ontologies underlying particle physics and cosmology—the constitutivity of our cosmos. By “broad-based” I'm exposing my own ignorance; the mathematics of physics is mostly beyond me. But that's where my fascination lies. And how do multiverses, branes, hidden dimensions, flows, dark matter, virtual particles, etc.—how do these objects / things / flows / figure within traditional ontological thinking? Or epistemology for that matter? This is all fascinating—an almost crystalline domain here on one hand, and then those images of slaughter and destruction in everyday life on the other.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016

Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life

tedhughes
Jonathan Bate
Harper ($40)

by Katie Marquette

Ted Hughes is arguably one of the most hated men in literary history. Following the death of his first wife, Sylvia Plath, and the subsequent success of her dark and disturbing Ariel poems, Hughes was accused of everything from wife beating to sadism to outright murder. Feminists proudly adopted the deceased Plath as one of their own, a female artist brought to the point of despair by an egotistical man, or so the story went. Her grave was repeatedly vandalized: “Sylvia Plath Hughes” was changed back to simply “Sylvia Plath,” with crude marks etched over the surname “Hughes.” The message was clear: in the grand drama of history, Sylvia Plath was to be remembered. Ted Hughes was to be erased.

Jonathon Bate’s new biography, Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life, challenges this traditional narrative. The book’s release in the fall of 2015 might have marked the first time a significant biography has been solely devoted to Hughes; previous biographies have generally been dual-biographies of Plath, with one biography even titled Her Husband. Whatever else, this is truly the story of Hughes, not Plath.

Writing in elegant and lucid prose, Bate gives readers a glimpse into the life of a brilliantly complicated man. We follow Hughes through his raucous youth, hunting and fishing with his brother and father. His childhood on the English moors instilled in him a deep love and respect for nature, a passion that led him to become an environmental activist in his later years. He was a smart but distracted student, preferring to work on his own projects. He had a natural talent for writing and poetry, and although he considered a career as a zoologist, it seemed he was always destined for the literary life.

He met Sylvia Plath when she attended Cambridge on a Fulbright Scholarship. Their connection was immediate and they were married only four months after they met. Their notoriously passionate and troubled marriage occupies only a brief section of the biography, but Bate is sure to emphasize the importance of this time, as Hughes’ years with Plath were an incredibly formative time for him as a poet. It was Plath, after all, who typed up and sent away the manuscript of The Hawk in the Rain, his first poetry collection, which would win him the Galbraith prize and a much-needed $5,000.

Hughes loved and was loved by women all his life. His hulking frame, deep voice, and passionate nature endeared him to countless women, only a handful of which we get to meet in Bate’s biography. Despite his notoriety, Hughes was an intensely private man and many of the details of his relationships are left to conjecture. What can be said with certainty is that Hughes was infatuated with women, even viewing them in mythical terms. He was obsessed with Robert Graves’s The White Goddess and saw women as powerful, but often destructive, characters in the drama of his life.

Hughes’ life was filled with tragedy: the death of Plath, the death of his lover Assia Wevill and their young daughter Shura, the death of a longtime friend and lover of early onset cancer—the list goes on. One can only be grateful he didn’t live to see his son, Nick, commit suicide. Bate explains the complex way in which Hughes dealt with these tragedies. Famously, Hughes placed immense importance on his dreams, often viewing them as prophetic. He also cast divinations, asked for people’s star signs, and used a Ouija board. A deeply spiritual man, he saw meaning in everything, perhaps especially in death. He also saw his role as poet in mythical terms. When made Poet Laureate of England, he saw himself as noble seer, diviner of truth. In his mind he was performing a sacred duty.

While the personal details of Hughes’ life are undeniably engrossing, Bate also gives equal attention to his poetry. While Hughes’ poetry is infamously repetitive and abstruse, it is also expertly crafted, filled with complex allusions and metaphors. With his thorough knowledge of Hughes’ life, Bate seamlessly weaves poetry in and out of the narrative. With so much interest in Hughes’ personal life, his art is often left out completely. Bate takes pains to give equal attention to portraying both Hughes the man and Hughes the artist, an awareness any serious student of poetry will appreciate.

The thesis of the biography, if there can be a thesis to a man’s life, is that Hughes’ tragic marriage to Plath completely dominated his life. Although Bate has done an admirable job in keeping this biography focused on Hughes, not Plath, ultimately it seems he cannot escape her. Hughes, a man obsessed with myth and meaning, saw Plath as a shade from the underworld, a wraith come to haunt and inspire him. Although previous biographies have often painted Hughes as the adulterous womanizer, Bate gives us a softer, but no less accurate, perspective. This book is especially important for the many Plath disciples who still dismiss Hughes’ literary contributions based on somewhat simplistic assumptions about his and Plath’s marriage.

"I hope one has the right to one's own life," Hughes said, while in the midst of legal disputes over rights to Sylvia Plath's work. This tension between being a public figure (Poet Laureate, "myth-maker," "prophet," etc.) and a highly private person dominated Hughes' life. Clearly this contradiction would plague his biographer as well; Bate devotes a lengthy section at the end of the book to justifying the existence of this “unauthorised life”—a type of biography, Bate insists, Hughes would have preferred. The role of biography is complex, but for what it's worth, Bate can rest easy knowing he has written a candid, thorough, and respectful account of such a monumental figure. Thanks to Bate, Ted Hughes cannot be erased after all.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
indiebound
Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016

Quiet Book

quietbookPattie McCarthy
Apogee Press ($15.95)

by Jenny Drai

In “genre scenes,” the third and final section of Pattie McCarthy’s new collection of poetry, the speaker tells us to “choose a moment & mark it.” What bookends this instruction is a consideration of individual moments of motherhood, moments that have shaped the parameters of history, language, and Western art. The book takes its name from those handmade volumes made of fabric that contain quiet activities to entertain and instruct young children; in doing so it both considers silence and turns the notion of silence on its head. Motherhood is bustling, even full of white noise that sometimes threatens to consume the self. In “xyz&&,” a series of short pieces containing linked impressions, lists, and micronarratives, McCarthy writes:

in physics, a daughter is a nuclide
formed by the radioactive decay
of another. of course, mother rhymes with
another. but this is just too meta-
& silly & loaded for me. pinion
on the clean fin clear clear wave always at a loss,
we remain open, persons in process.

Here, McCarthy’s use of enjambment and short lines, conversational and pleasantly erudite at once, make a case for the power of insistence in the process of personal evolution. In other words, the line may be over, but the thought continues and joins other thoughts to form the building blocks of personal art. The speaker of this poetry is aware both of depletion and of the possibility that loss (of time? of energy?) is a transformative process that may create an entirely different whole. We are the sum of our present circumstances, this poetry tells us in language that is both spare and evocative.

Circumstance and reflection are considered at length in the ekphrastic poems that make up “genre scenes,” most of which pull the reader in with winding lines that alter pace and make use of repetition. “her I have painted / myself painting myself,” McCarthy writes in “self-portrait, seated.” Constantly, consistently, the poet/mother/speaker writes herself into and away from artistic representations of femininity and motherhood through the ages, considering work by Flemish, Dutch, and French painters of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as well as more contemporary works by Elźbieta Jablońska and Kate Kern Mundie. In doing so she tethers herself to her own experience of work, creativity (or the lack thereof), and domesticity. In “the listening girl (repetitions exist),” McCarthy evokes a painter who “liked making / paintings of women spinning reading cooking / lacemaking” and writes:

listen in listen listen hush
you’re making so much noise I can’t hear you

let us consider the surface of domestic order
or not let us consider the domestic
or feral pigeon let us pluck it like a chicken
let us empty the wine jug let us be reckless & overheard

In these textured, run-on lines, the speaker both shushes and celebrates the comfortable racket of daily life, suggesting that in the dual navigation of silence and noise, of reception and creation, lies movement and thus survival. Throughout this collection, McCarthy grounds the reader in gestures of love, bemusement, adoration, and interdependence as the poet-mother tests her own boundaries and abilities and tells us, “there is always / another one to be found.” In Quiet Book, the reader finds thrust, brevity, fragmentation, and completion.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016

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